In Exile

Moral Intelligence

Therefore, stay awake! 
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. (Gospel)

There are different ways of being intelligent, of being awake. Not everyone is bright in the same way.
Some people are gifted mathematically and philosophically. That’s the intelligence of an Albert Einstein, an Alfred North Whitehead, a Bill Gates. Some others are gifted with emotional intelligence. You see this, for instance, in the great novelists, the Iris Murdochs, the Anne Byatts, the John Steinbecks, and the Alice Munroes, who possess an emotional grasp of things that the greatest psychologists in the world can only envy.

Then there is something that might be called practical intelligence. I saw this in some of my high school friends, young men who couldn’t pass enough courses to graduate, but who are wonderfully gifted with life-skills and are the ones the rest of us lean on whenever we need to sort out our plumbing, our automobile woes, our leaking roofs, and the thousand other things that mathematics, philosophy, and literature don’t equip us to handle.
There is too a certain aesthetic intelligence, that unique brightness of the artist which sometimes combines with the emotional or even the mathematical (especially in the case of music) but is often an intelligence all to itself.

Finally, there is still another kind of intelligence, moral intelligence. What is this? Sometimes we call it depth or wisdom or character. Whatever its name, moral intelligence is a sensitivity to the deeper contours within life. It is a certain grasp of those things which hold life together at its root and which must be respected so that life doesn’t go sour, unravel, disintegrate, and turn against us. Moral intelligence intuits the imperatives innate within the DNA of life itself. It grasps the things we have do, and not just the things we like to do. It lays bare the hard-wiring inside the mystery of life and love.

Where does it come from? Like other forms of intelligence, it is perhaps mainly a natural endowment, a temperament, a grace given by God as a gift to the world. But, I suspect, in most cases it is also the product of something else, namely, a certain kind of suffering and humiliation. What do I mean by that?
If we look at our lives and ask ourselves: What has made us deep? What has helped us to understand the deeper things in life? If we are honest, we will have to admit that what made us deep were not our successes or achievements. These brought us glory, but not depth or character. 

What brought us depth and character are the very things we are often ashamed to talk about, namely, our inferiorities—getting picked last on the school team, being bullied on the playground, some physical inadequacy, our mother’s weight problem, our dad’s alcoholism, an abuse inflicted upon us that we were powerless to stop, a slow-wittedness that perpetually left us out of the inner circle, our failure to achieve what we’d like to in life, a pain about our sexual orientation, an addiction we can’t master, and many, many other small and big wounds and bruises that helped shape our souls.

James Hillman, our generation’s maverick intellectual, speaks eloquently on this. Depth, he suggests, never comes out of our successes, but only out of our inferiorities and failures. And this, he says, gives us character: Our scars are like huge stones in a riverbed; they may do nothing but stay still and hold their ground, but the river has to take them into account and alter its flow because of them and it’s precisely this which gives a river (and a face) some character.

This truth lies at the very heart of Jesus’ life and message. When the disciples can’t fathom or accept the crucifixion, he asks them: “Wasn’t it necessary?” Isn’t there a necessary connection between the humiliation of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday? Isn’t there an intrinsic connection between going through a certain kind of suffering and reaching a certain kind of depth?
Indeed, Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, his asking God three times to spare him from the pain and humiliation of being crucified, was precisely his own reluctance to accept that a certain kind of depth can only be arrived at by journeying through a certain kind of humiliation. And, in his case, he wasn’t just going to be picked on by the playground bully, he was going to be hung naked before the whole world. But that was the only route to Easter Sunday and he had the moral intelligence to see it.
And what the crucifixion produced is moral wisdom. That’s why the cross of Christ, as Rene Girard puts it, is the single most revolutionary moral event that has ever happened on this planet. What the cross of Christ does, as the gospels tell us, is rip away the veil the separates us from seeing inside the holy of holies.

And our own crosses and humiliations can do that for us too. They can rip away a blindness and wake us up morally.

 

Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser. Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas. He can be contacted through his web site, www.ronrolheiser.com.

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson